Posts tagged with: solar industry

Unfortunately the solar industry is not a level playing field at present.  The Chinese government has provided some enormous loans to their top PV manufacturers (e.g.  These manufacturers are using the money for incredibly rapid expansion so that they are fast outgrowing all of their European competitors.  Being bigger means they have greater efficiency, which means the large Chinese players now have even lower costs than their foreign competitors.  There are obviously cries from US and German manufacturers about violations of international trade laws etc and indeed the situation is particularly unfair seeing as it was the German FiT that created the Chinese manufacturers in the first place, but there is little chance of any legal recourse in the near term.  The situation has led German policy makers to think about protectionist policies for solar though (‘buy German’) and provided fuel for the anti-solar lobby.

All that aside, the top-tier Chinese solar manufacturers are now producing high quality modules with lower costs than anyone else.  They have had a lot of experience with due diligence from European banks and are now pro-active in respect to quality control and bankability.  They are also beginning to invest heavily in R&D which will close the already small technology gap with Japanese and European competition.  Chinese solar manufacturers are integrating vertically in the value chain in a big way.  This means that for example cell manufacturers are starting to make wafers, silicon and modules etc. This gives them greater ability to control quality and improves margin retention.  They are also expanding downstream and bulking up sales teams in Europe with Europeans. This reduces the ‘fear factor’ of working with Chinese companies and taking revenue away from European wholesalers.  The strength of the big Chinese players is evidently putting a strain on its competition. If one had to choose between German or Chinese manufacturers as the most likely to be around in 25 years it would almost certainly be the Chinese.

It should be noted that there a number of Chinese manufacturers that do not have such high standards and should be avoided.  Many people in the solar industry are not convinced that the UK’s Microgeneration Certification Scheme is effective at weeding out these poor manufactures judging from the companies which have gotten through.  There are also lots of counterfeit modules  on the market now (for example fake Trina Solar and ET Solar modules are widespread) so its important to find installers with good checking procedures.

So does the rise of the big Chinese solar manufacturers damage the UK and make the Feed-in tariffs pointless, seeing as it will support the continued growth of unbeatable foreign competition?  I would argue that the only way to create growth in our manufacturing industry is to develop a domestic end-user market.  For a long time the UK has precious little in terms of PV manufacturing capability, which means that the strength of Chinese companies has little impact on us.  If we were not buying from China, we would be buying from elsewhere.   As the UK market grows, more people become engaged in the industry and start to look at product innovation.  Already there are a number of UK companies developing solar products specific to the UK market as a direct result of the introduction of the Feed-in tariff.

Furthermore, module manufacturing makes up only a small portion of the solar value chain.  Installing roof-top PV is highly labour intensive, and the feed-in tariffs will create a huge number of jobs in the badly suffering building services industry.  The fact that there are good quality, cheap Chinese panels available allows solar PV to be more competitive as a renewable energy source.  Costs are expected to fall rapidly over the coming years (as they have already) meaning that in around 5-6 years time the cost of solar electricity will be at par with retail electricity prices, which means the FiTs won’t be needed anymore.

Another point is that the big Chinese PV manufacturers will start doing the last manufacturing step, module integration, close to their markets.  This is because you can air freight solar cells, but you have to ship finished solar panels because of the glass (regular glass factories normally only serve a radius of 100km).  By doing module integration close to their key markets, manufacturers won’t have working capital tied up for 4 weeks and will reduce the risk of damage in transport.  Sharp already do this with a module integration plant in Wrexham, and we may well start seeing the Chinese companies open manufacturing plants in Europe, even in the UK, over the next couple of years which would provide an interesting boost to UK industry.

Eventually the playing field will level out again – China will get more expensive and there will be space for newcomers with new technologies, but for now the Chinese players clearly have the upper hand.

Jeff Siegel, a top renewable energy investor recently took time out from his very busy schedule to grant an interview with Total Solar Energy (TSE).

If you don’t know Jeff, he runs the newsletter Green Chip Stocks, an independent investment research service that focuses primarily on renewable energy and organic & natural food markets.

TSE: Hi Jeff. Thanks for your time. Can you tell me when you first got started in solar stocks?

Jeff: I had actually been an advocate of solar energy ever since I did a high-school project on it back in 1987. I just found it so fascinating that we could power our homes and our lights and our appliances with these little devices. And I found it frustrating that more attention wasn’t being paid to it.

My interest in solar never waned, and as I started working in the world of finance, I made it a point to focus on investment opportunities that would not only pay off for investors – but for the global community as well.

TSE: Given the current economic and volatile stock market situation, would it be wise to invest in solar stocks right now?

Jeff: Well, with any investment, there is always risk. That includes renewable energy. Yes, the future of solar is very bright. Going forward, solar will be a significant piece of our new energy economy. But at the end of the day, any time you invest, you are taking on some risk.

That being said, I think at this time, a lot of quality solar stocks are undervalued. Some of this is because of the euro (so many solar manufacturers are heavily exposed to the euro), some of this is because of the broader market pulling these stocks down, and some of it is because there are a lot of people that are counting solar out because of the German feed-in tariff cut. The latter makes no sense. The future of solar is NOT in Europe, but rather the U.S. and China.

I think the solar market will still struggle this year, but once we have some more clarification on China and U.S. solar support, we’re going to see the launch of one of the biggest solar bull markets ever. So those in it for the long haul, I’ve been recommending picking up some of the stronger solar stocks on those big dips. We are, however, going to have to exercise a little patience.

TSE: How would you evaluate the year 2010 for the solar industry up to now?

Jeff: Lots of irrational thinking this year. Again, there’s too much focus on Europe. Aside from a slide in the euro, long-term investors know that the payoff will come from the U.S. and China market. But until we stop focusing on tariff cuts and the misconception that there’s an oversupply of product (which is absolutely false), then the market will be quite shaky. We’ve seen that this year, and I think we’ll probably continue to see this.

TSE: Where and when to do you expect to see parity with fossil fuels? And what effect will this have on solar stocks?

Jeff: You could actually make the case that they already are. Assuming of course, you strip ALL subsidies for fossil fuels, and take into account the liquidation of natural capital associated with the production, distribution and consumption of fossil fuels.

In other words, if utilities that operated coal-fired power plants had to pay for carbon, had to pay for mercury pollution and had to pay for any other damage done to ecosystem services (things like the regulation of climate, cycling of nutrients and water, pest control, etc), solar would be significantly cheaper than coal. But what we do is use a baseline for energy costs that are simply incorrect.

Back to the real world, however, where we continue to subsidize fossil fuels and turn a blind eye to the trillions of dollars of damage done to our natural capital every year – I imagine we could see grid parity within 10 years in most parts of the world where there is a strong solar resource.

TSE: What are the major threats to the growth of the solar industry at the moment.

Jeff: Lack of leadership and support. I absolutely hate the idea of subsidizing anything. But the only way solar can compete is for it to get the same generous subsidies that the fossil fuel industries have received for years. And we need to end the debate with the naysayers.

The technology exists, the proof exists, the data is conclusive – we can power a significant portion of our world with solar. I no longer even entertain those who want to continue throwing up roadblocks. They are no more than minor bumps that I’m happy to roll over. This is going to happen. You can either be part of the solution, or you can step aside.

TSE: Do you see the UK feed-in tariff having the same effect on share prices as it did when it was introduced in Germany?

Jeff: Hard to say. Every government operates differently. Spain had a great plan, but its execution was horrible. These tariffs have to be monitored and phased out sooner than later. Otherwise, you create a bubble that’s bad for everyone.

TSE: Do you feel the US would benefit from a nationwide feed in tariff?

Jeff: Not necessarily. I think this needs to be done on a regional basis. An FIT in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Utah – these would be great because you have such a strong solar resource in these states. But if you try to force a FIT for the whole country, you’ll get a lot of backlash, and in some areas, it probably won’t be nearly as effective.

TSE: How do you think the solar industry will look in 5 years?

Jeff: I think the leading solar companies today will be some of the biggest corporations in the world. I think the technology will be much more advanced, production costs will decrease and there will be more policy support. The costs for consumers will be much less, and I think we’ll see a lot of companies offering solar leasing programs.

TSE: Once again Jeff, thanks for your time. I certainly hope you are right.

Many Thanks To Total Solar Energy

Sharp Corp, a leading Japanese manufacturer of solar cells has given a stark indication of European demand for solar production by investing £29.5 million in its British plant. Growing demand across Europe and in particular in the UK, following the introduction of tariff subsidies has seen the need for Sharp Corp to increase the output of solar cell modules in its Swindon based plant.

The increased investment gives encouraging signs not only for UK manufacturing in the face of the financial crisis but also renewable energy as a means of rejuvenating the struggling economy and generating jobs.

The feed-in tariff system, which came into effect in April this year was devised as a way of attracting investment in renewable energy and has proved successful in countries such as Germany and Spain where tariff payments have offset the initial costs of installing solar plant and offered attractive yields to investors. Sharp Corp have certainly seen an added interest in solar power, reflected by the investment in the manufacturing of essential solar components.

“This time last year 99 per cent of the modules that we manufactured at Wrexham were exported to Europe and that has already dropped to 90 per cent. The feed-in tariff has given confidence to manufacturers like ourselves to invest,” spoke Andrew Lee, General Manager of Sharp Solar.

Indeed, the investment in the UK plant will see four additional production lines taking the capacity of the factory up to 500 mW by 2011. In terms of job creation, the plant which currently employs 750 people is unsure about how many new jobs will be created but green shoots nevertheless for supporters of a low carbon economy.

If you want to buy a solar panel in the UK and use it to generate green electricity under the UK feed-in tariff, you will have a much smaller range of solar panels to choose from than customers anywhere else in the world. The reason for this is because of a scheme invented by the UK government called the Micro-generation Certification Scheme (or MCS). This benefits and drawbacks of this scheme were discussed in a previous article on this site and now that we are two months into the feed-in tariff it is a good time for a review of the situation.

There are more solar panels to choose from now than there were two months ago, however there is still a very restricted choice with some major solar panel manufacturers missing from the list. This can only hurt the UK industry. At a time such as now, when the industry is going through an unprecedented boom, customers need as much competition in the market place as possible. Such restrictions are dangerous as they can lead to inflated or irregular pricing. Europe as a whole is experiencing high volumes of demand at present (largely driven by Germany) which is causing equipment shortages and long lead times. We have seen evidence that the MCS restrictions are exacerbating these problems as there is a much smaller number of available suppliers to choose from.

Some of the stated aims of the MCS process are valid. I am very much in favour of protecting consumers from low quality, inferior products. The question remains is how much does MCS add on top of the existing international accreditation bodies for solar panels such as IEC and UL. These bodies are represented by committees with decades of experience in solar panel reliability testing who spend a huge amount of time developing new ways to prove reliability.

MCS accreditation requires visits from MCS inspectors who ‘inspect’ a manufacturer’s facility before their solar panels can be given the green light. Nowhere is it written who these inspectors are and what their qualifications might be to do this above and beyond IEC or UL testing.

Looking at the current list of MCS accredited solar panels it is difficult to see on what criteria certification is being given. Some large very high quality manufacturers are missing, whilst some small, unheard of manufacturers are already there.

I have heard from colleagues in the industry that administrative and beaurocratic issues are currentls holding up a large number of MCS applications and that a raft of new solar panels will join the list soon. I hope this is the case, and I would encourage anyone with more information on the issue to contact this site. My message to the organizers of the MCS process however, is to put more effort into not damaging the industry that it is designed to support.